Human Centered Cities Must be Built at a Human Scale.

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Photo by David Marcu on Unsplash

When we look at maps or engineering drawings, the scale at which the image is viewed changes based on the distances we want to see. An inch on the map can represent a mile or it can represent 100 miles, each of these cases represent a different scale. The distances shown on the map change with the type of travel you’re planning. The scale for planning a walk is different than the scale for planning a road trip. An inch on a walking map, represents a couple hundred feet while an inch on an interstate map will represent tens or hundreds of miles.These concepts of scale have powerful applications in urban land use and transportation planning. In architecture and urban planning, the term ‘Human Scale’ comes up a lot. ‘Human Scale’ is much more than just industry jargon, it is the key to making cities more human-centered, user-friendly, and livable.

“In the last 50 years, architects have forgotten what a good human scale is.”

―Jan Gehl

Another useful example of scale is found in engineering and architectural scales. In simplest terms, “scaling” drawings is a way to show very big things on very small paper. There are professional standards for doing this depending for different professions. A simple example is showing a proposed subdivision development at 1:1000 scale, an engineering scale. This essentially converts 1m in the real world, to 1mm in the paper world. Architects often use different standard scales, but the concept is the same.

Human Scale

Designing to “human scale” means design that is optimized for human use. This can apply to any perspective from physical to psychological. It is quintessentially Human Centered Design of urban spaces. Human Scale is the design of physical elements to illicit the best response from human users. At times, this means tools that lead to the most efficient completion of tasks. Other times, it is the design of elements to generate the most positive psychological response.

“There is no logic that can be superimposed on the city; people make it, and it is to them, not buildings, that we must fit our plans.”

― Jane Jacobs

There are entire fields of study devoted to the research of the optimal separation of buildings and objects for the best human response. Other research looks at the most pleasing size difference between your biggest elements in a space and your smallest. The research may sound superfluous, but when you take a closer look, there is some value in what researchers are finding. The value is that this thinking improves the human experience in cities.

A car’s interior is designed to human scale, but roads are not. When we moved the human space into cars in the 20th Century, we decided we didn’t need to make the spaces outside of cars hospitable to humans anymore. Compare the streets built before cars to today’s roads, you can see the difference in perspective.

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Before Cars. Photo by H Fall on Unsplash
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After Cars. Photo by Antonio DiCaterina on Unsplash

The same thing happened with houses. The automobile gave more average people access to private spaces, mainly in the form of suburban homes and land. Some see this as a benefit, but in a lot of ways, this reduced the focus of making spaces outside of private homes more hospitable to humans.

In the 20th Century we paradoxically made our concept of home smaller as our houses got bigger.

Think of human scale as designing something that could be used by a naked human. They don’t have to be naked of course, this is simply to illustrate that a human in a natural state could use the design if they wanted to.

In an aesthetic context, the design of any street should be built to look good to someone standing at street level, not sitting on a plane miles above it. Landscape architects designing parks often get this wrong. Except for a couple features, most of the pictures and drawings presented by designers show the park from a bird’s-eye view even though most people will be experiencing the park from down on the ground. From ground level, the park might appear barren due to the large distances between trees and other decorative elements, but no one would notice, because those aerials show a really neat sidewalk pattern. The sidewalks form broad sweeping patterns across the landscape that look beautiful in satellite imagery, but people will end up cutting their own paths through the grass because the sidewalks don’t take them where they are going. Those curving, indirect paths aren’t designed with the users in mind. These parks are not designed to the human scale.

It’s as if Brasilia was conceived from an airplane, where they just moved around the various pieces and volumes on the model until they created a nice composition. There was no one on the ground, looking at how the spaces worked between these volumes. In the old cities, we have spaces; in the modernistic cities, we have left-over spaces. They put down the buildings first. Then they asked landscape architects to tidy up, and then they looked out the window to see if there were any people enjoying these leftover spaces, only to discover that there were none.

―Jan Gehl

Not Human Scale

Different transportation modes are only effective for trips within a certain distance range. For every mode of transportation there are trips that are too short and others than are too long to be reasonable. This applies whether the trip is on foot, by bicycle, by rail, by automobile, or by air. Different modes are optimized for different kinds of travel. Take planes for example, a plane is optimized for flying through the air at incredible speeds. Planes are not however, any better than a bicycle once they hit the tarmac. Planes may be even worse at traveling at tarmac speed than a bicycle would be. There are other inefficiencies associated with plane travel. These have to do with everything you have to in the airport (security, check-in, etc.) and everything you have to do to get to the airport whether you take a bus, taxi, or park your car. Additionally, it is expensive to travel by plane, sometimes too expensive to be worth choosing the mode over driving. For plane travel to be optimized, the inefficiencies must be overcome by the efficiencies. The biggest efficiency offered by air travel is the speed of travel. You need to choose a destination that is far enough away to make traveling by plane a reasonable option. This line of thinking applies to all modes of transportation. The efficiencies of a given mode, must overcome its inefficiencies to be a suitable choice for a specific application.

Human, Bike, Car, and Plane scales all have different uses.

Consider this scenario: Would you choose to fly to a place that is a one-hour drive away? Due to the cost, the time to get to and from the airport, transportation at your destination, the long pre-flight and post-flight steps, and the cramped quarters; very few people, if anybody, would choose to drive rather than fly for this trip. Every single one of us has a threshold for when we start to seriously consider flying instead of driving. It might be when you’re planning 6 hours of driving that you start to look at flying instead. Think again of a map. A 6 hour drive or 1 hour flight uses a map at a scale that could show you an entire state.

Now look at the car-scale. At a certain point, or a certain “scale,” car travel is hit with a great deal of inefficiencies that cannot be overcome. These inefficiencies typically arise when urban densities rise and trips are short. The stop lights, limited space, other drivers, other modes, and the endless construction all prevent a car from doing what it does best. These problems are analogous to the inefficiencies of traveling by plane. Cars are built for traveling at highway speed where their fuel efficiency is highest and where other modes, like the bicycle, just cannot compete.

To fully grasp the concept of scale think again of maps. What scale would show up in your map’s legend to show a walking distance, biking distance, driving distance, or flying distance? If you were looking at maps on your computer, the screen stays the same so the “real” space taken up by the maps would all be the same size, but they would show completely different things due to their “scale.” Planes are best for trips with scales in multiple hundreds of kilometers (>200km), cars for trips measured in multiple tens of kilometers (>20km), bikes for trips measured in kilometers (>2km), and walking for trips measured in hundreds of meters (>100m). The scales in the legend of you map would reflect these distances. Different modes of transportation solve problems at different scales. The reason we don’t walk across countries is because walking doesn’t scale up to those distances. Conversely, air travel doesn’t scale down to city blocks. This highlights something many urban planners and engineers are starting to realize; automobiles are often being used at the wrong scale, like using a common ruler to measure the size of an atom.

Ideas that Scale

To make our cities more livable we need to prioritize the transportation mode that scales best to the physical constraints of a city. It’s clear that when the buildings start to get taller and space becomes more scarce, trips start to get shorter. Shorter trips and less space are perfect incentives to re-prioritize the movement of humans that comes naturally to us. A walkable, bikeable city is a human-scale city, one with low energy consumption, pollution, and congestion. It’s also cheaper to maintains and conforms to all abilities and ages. Building walkable cities is central to the Human Centered Design of urban spaces.

Professional Engineer writing about improving the Urban User Experience.

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